In a culture which is still overwhelmingly hetero- and cis-normative, ‘coming out’ remains a necessity for those of us who identify anywhere on the LGBT+ spectrum. Often awkward, sometimes painful, occasionally hilarious: coming out is an experience that is at once hugely personal and shared by millions of people across the globe.
From dropping it casually into conversation to penning an angsty love poem, every experience of coming out is different. TCS interviewed a selection of LGBT+ students about the ways they’ve found to reveal this secret.
The following are stories and reflections on coming out from five of the gay, bi and transgender Cambridge students that I talked to. Some names have been changed.
Alice: I told different friends over a period of about two years [that I am bisexual.] Bear in mind this was an all girls school and it wasn't really a topic that was discussed until about year 10 at all. I first told two of my best friends at scout camp in the most incredibly cinematic way – imagine sitting by a campfire on a fence in the dark spilling your heart and feeling incredibly connected for maybe the first time ever. Aw. And they were so, so supportive and I cried with the sheer relief of having put it into words, of it finally existing outside of me. And then we ate loads of chocolate, which also helped.
I told my parents in a letter. It was too dramatic for words. My dad got rushed into hospital the night before Christmas Eve and in the midst of it all I was just struck by the fact that if he died now he wouldn't know. So I wrote a letter and gave it to my mum and told her I wanted them to read it together. Looking back I feel kind of bad because that's probably the last thing they wanted to think about when spending Christmas in hospital! But they talked to me separately and whilst my mum was a bit "it's probably a phase" my dad was fine with it and it didn't cause much of a stir to be honest. Although I do wish I had challenged my mum on how she reacted: she was totally supportive but still not ideal.
Oh and there was the time I confessed my crush/overwhelming desire and year 10 unrequited love for a girl by sending her a poem. Looking back I just… Cringe. Cringe. Cringe.
Does coming out feel important to me? I certainly think it's important in terms of a wider perspective on things like gender and feminism. More personally I guess I do feel like the experiences I’ve had as a result of my sexuality have shaped a lot of my way of thinking, so coming out can help people to know where I’m coming from.
George: Although I didn’t ‘come out’ [as a transgender man] as such when I was a child, I lived quite openly as a child who wanted to be a boy and my family had to deal with this. I don’t know whether they thought it was a phase, I think maybe they hoped it was, but I knew it was more than that.
It was within the last year I said more concretely to my parents that I actually identify as a man: that people at university call me George not my previous name; that I wear men’s clothes and I bind my chest; that I use male pronouns. The reaction in my family has been one of shock, but not surprise. It has a big emotional impact on the whole family; I think much more so than being gay. The impact was in no ways one of rejection, which is what I was afraid of with my family, you always are, but it has had a big impact nonetheless.
As for coming out in Cambridge, certainly in my college it has been fantastic. The students I hang out with, a lot of whom are LGBT anyway, have been very receptive to my change of name and pronouns. People I know less well have been great as well: the feeling has very much been that we respect this person, we’re going to do what he asks us to do, call him what he asks us to call him.
On the other hand, I’m a Christian and my experience of Cambridge churches has been slightly different. I’m at a fantastic church at the moment where I feel very comfortable, but I used to go to one of the big student churches. I lived there as a woman for over a year and, while my closest friends knew I didn’t fully identify as a woman, I didn’t change the name I asked people to call me until I had left that church because I just couldn’t come out to anyone there. It’s not that they were transphobic: it didn’t come from a place of hatred, but a lack of understanding. When I explained my situation to the pastor there, he simply didn’t engage with my feelings about my gender. I’d told him I was in a relationship with a woman, so he engaged with me as a lesbian. That being said, I want to emphasise that even from within conservative churches there are members who are very supportive and who meet me where I’m at. I’ve been really touched by the humility of certain responses I’ve had from other Christians, even if the leadership of certain churches hasn’t always been fantastic about it.
When you come out as trans*, you almost need everyone to come out with you: to transition with you, to transition to using your new name, to using the right pronouns. Otherwise it’s just very weird for me: I understand that sometimes people, especially my family who’ve know me the longest, use my old name because they’re still adjusting, but you need people to be willing to change with you.
Now that I present as a man, whether or not I come out to new people as trans very much depends who I’m with. Sometimes in an LGBT space where I feel comfortable, I will sometimes say I’m a trans guy. In other situations I’ll generally present as a man and if questioned I’ll say something like ‘I know I look young, the hormones are taking a while to kick in.’ I don’t always directly come out as a trans man, but in a way just introducing myself, saying my name, is a king of coming out, in that it’s likely to challenge people’s assumptions about me and suggest to them that something’s up with my gender. I guess that’s what coming out is, in a way: challenging prior assumptions. As being gay or bi becomes more accepted in mainstream media, there are perhaps fewer assumptions to be challenged, more instances in which disclosing which gender(s) you’re attracted to is just sharing a bit of – albeit quite personal – information. The trans* side of things is still a bit behind; most people assuming that any given person they encounter is cisgender and so they get quite flustered when something suggests that’s not the case.
I am very aware that people might react differently if they knew I was trans and, yes, it does bother me sometimes. That was my main motivation behind coming out to my family and since I have I can’t describe the level of relief there is. There are things I can say now, that I couldn’t before: no, I don’t want those trousers because they look too feminine. Yes, I do use men’s deodorant, because I identify as a man. Before I was inventing hundreds upon hundreds of silly little reasons to do things, like that, and now I’ve come out those things aren’t an issue any more.
Polly: I first came out as bisexual to my close friends at school when I was about 13. Most of them were also various shades of gay so they were very understanding – well, mostly ‘supremely unbothered’ was the general response! I wasn’t out to a wider group, though; I was at an all-girls’ school which had some serious problems with homophobic bullying.
When, in 6th form, it became more widely known that I wasn’t straight, I knew people would have questions; what I didn’t expect was that absolutely no-one would ask me to my face. Those that were curious – and there were a lot of them – asked my friends instead, when I wasn’t present, and the assumption was always that I must be a lesbian. This was the incredibly frustrating part. The silencing of the B in the acronym is one of the things that angers me most, today. I am a girl who likes all genders.
I’ve been very open about my identity at uni, to the point of blurting it out somewhat unprompted, because it feels very, very important to me. Sexuality is pretty invisible and bisexuality sometimes more so, in terms of the way other people read me according to who I’m in a relationship with. I’m incredibly privileged to have friends and acquaintances for whom my sexuality has never been a problem. My main issue is that I’m still not out to my parents, and as a third year who plans to move back home whilst looking for work next year after I graduate, this still feels like a major stumbling block. I don’t think they’ll reject me, and I sometimes wonder if they already know, or suspect; but I do think it’ll take them time to adjust. Because of that, I’m still looking for the right time and way to come out to them.
Chris: I came out as a gay-identifying bisexual male student in Easter term of my first year at Cambridge. Outwardly, Cambridge boasts a network of tolerance towards LGBT+ students, as any glance at leaflets and posters around town advertising queer-friendly groups and gay club nights will tell you. But I still think that there exists a climate of latent homophobia. When I came out at uni I discovered that even though most people were intellectually immune to homophobia, they wouldn’t argue that same sex attraction was deviant or immoral, the visceral disgust at learning that a guy in a nearly all-male friendship group (which was, and still is, my main friendship circle in college) should turn out to be queer was striking and potent. At worst, I was the object of a contempuous suspicion that I might pounce on one of my mates when their backs were turned.
I think that the process of coming out remains a formative experience that queer people unfortunately must go through. But it has two great advantages: it distinguishes the real friends from the superficial acquaintances; and it forces the production of a great personal courage to strike out against the rest of the world. Nonetheless, there still remains an acute sense of otherness, and the painful realisation that one’s desires will systematically fail to line up with the way the world conceives that things ought to be. And we can make that realisation less painful, if only we realise that queers and straights are just as fragile and vulnerable and hopeful as anyone else.
Louis: I’d been out [as a gay man] at school since I was 15 and never had a single problem or bad comment. I remember when I told a friend at home for the first time his response was just, ‘oh yeah, that’s cool, what homework have we got?’ Then in 6th form we had a joint 6th form with another school, so we had a whole new group of people join the school who didn’t know I was gay, and for some reason, with one of my close friends, it just never happened to come up in conversation. One day we were in a politics class and gay marriage came up, so I said: as a gay man I feel this. She was so shocked: I said ‘yeah, I’m gay’ and she just went ‘no, you’re not!’ Once the rest of the class confirmed that I’d been out since year ten she said ‘Oh, I’d always had a bit of a thing for you.’
With my parents, it was less a coming out of the closet, more a falling out of it. This was in the days before incognito mode, and my mum happened to look at my internet history… and then there was the awkward conversation at 12 at night in the living room. After that the tactic was to just ignore it, not to talk about it, not to acknowledge it. It’s much better now though. My mum had a really hard time of it at first, but it’s really improved: now she asks if I’m seeing anyone, wants to know what’s going on.
I think that it does matter to come out, because, while it’s nobody else’s business, you should be comfortable enough to be who you are and express it without worrying. The thing about being gay is, coming out isn’t something that just happens once and then it’s over with. You’re coming out all the time, if you hold hands with a guy in the street you’re coming out to everyone who happens to see you hold hands. It’s really important that you feel ok with who you are, to feel able to express yourself in that way without worrying.
I’ve never had a really bad reaction. Maybe it’s because I never saw it as a big deal coming out to my friends: I just bring it up in conversation casually. We’re in a really inclusive environment here; it’s not a big deal. The worst reaction people have ever had to me coming out is asking the dreaded question: ‘how do you know? If you’ve never slept with a girl, how do you know you’re not straight?’ etc. It’s infuriating that people still ask that, I’ve been asked that at Cambridge. So, the battle’s not won, but it’s definitely a good environment here.